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Archive for March, 2010

Great Lakes THATCamp Overview

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

This weekend, Michigan State played host to the Great Lakes THATCamp (@GLTHATCamp), an “un-conference” in humanities and technology. This was my first experience at a THATCamp or un-conference, and it was definitely a successful format that took some getting used to. Once I did, however, things went smoothly (Visit the original THATCamp page here). The process is as follows: to attend, you have to bring an idea, which is submitted a month or two ahead of time. 75 people are accepted, and they post their ideas to a blog to get things started. Other attendees comment on the posts, and get the discussion started. The first hour of the actual conference is dedicated all the attendees talking about possible sessions, scheduling them in rooms, and appointing facilitators. This was all put on a Google Spreadsheet, so that everyone could see it and add to it throughout the weekend.

Sessions were similarly informal: the topic was stated, people usually started by saying something like, “I’m here because of this and that reason”, and then conversation started. Questions were posed, problems solved, new ideas brought to the table and collaborations formed. While this was happening, I’d say about 75% of the attendees were on Twitter, posting links, quoting things that were said, and asking additional questions. People followed from “outside” the Camp, making suggestions, adding content, or asking questions. It was incredibly dynamic, both online and in the sessions, and made me truly value the possibilities of how different media could be used at a un- or non-un conference.

From the perspective of an archaeologist, it was an interesting experience. The overlap with humanists certainly lies in areas such as public history, public engagement, museums, and cultural heritage. Archaeologists have been using technology for a long time, so that overlap is fairly evident. These sessions did encourage me to think harder about applications of digital technology beyond data analysis, and into public engagement, in both similar and new ways. Certainly, my personal work and my work at Campus Archaeology (@capmsu) will benefit greatly. Also, there were sessions on technology and teaching, which is helpful for anyone who has to stand in front of a classroom. What the conference did so well was foster ideas. I will be putting up posts as I get time that are influenced by the things discussed in these sessions, as opposed to trying to talk about them all here. Stay tuned!

I’d like to congratulate the organizers, particularly Ethan Watrall (@captain_primate), for their hard work. It was a wonderful success. Anything that generates ideas and pushes people to think and interact in new ways is always a good thing, and should always be repeated.

There are ThatCamp’s being held across the country, so I would strongly encourage you all to look one up. The hash tag is #ThatCamp, for you Twitterers out there.

How Student Affairs will make me a better Professor

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Over the past two and a half years, I have worked in the Department of Student Life at Michigan State University, helping to coordinate the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Program. Although my time spent working with the office diminished from 25 to 10 to 5 hours a week, I have learned a great deal from this position that I would not have learned otherwise. Additionally, my girlfriend is also a student affairs professional, leading to many a conversation about what Student Affairs is and does. I have been, I feel, well exposed. Or at least, more exposed than most anthropology graduate students.

Needless to say, the culture in a student affairs office is dramatically different from that in my office in the Department of Anthropology. A lot of this has to do with the intent of the department: Student Life adopts a student-first orientation, where the single priority is students, particularly their “life outside of the classroom” (a phrase I hate, but people seem to keep using). An academic department such as Anthropology views their discipline first, and students are viewed as one of the priorities through that lens: how do we use anthropology to teach students about the world and how to view it critically? I think that what I have learned at Student Life will (and has been) valuable to my work as a member of an academic department for two reasons: first, it exposes me to a student-first perspective, and second, it provides me with in-depth knowledge about what student affairs programming exists and how I can use it to enhance what I do.

Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that many faculty or student affairs professionals aren’t capable, or don’t already do, what I’m about to talk about. Many of them do. I’m simply writing about how my exposure to Student Affairs has led me to these realizations about how I hope to approach my professional life. Carry on.

When I walk in the doors at 101 Student Services, I’m responsible for looking at every idea from the perspective of the student. This means I have to look at our programming to figure out how it is relevant to a 19 year old student in 2010. How will this program benefit the student? How will get them there? How will the program get across its message in an effective, relevant way? In order to do this, you have to “know” the student body. You have to know how they work, what they do, what music they listen to, what music they don’t listen to, and so on. You also have to know about where students are developmentally, what skills they have, what they don’t have, why they do what they do. This is part of the student-first perspective. This perspective allows you to keep in touch with what students are thinking, how they perceive the world, and how they are struggling to function within it.

The importance for faculty and administrators in academic departments, then, seems obvious. Instead of asking how can we teach students through anthropology, we can ask how can we teach anthropology to students in ways they will find relevant to their lives and perspectives? How can our teaching help them develop into better people? Instead of focusing on what questions a student missed in office hours, a student perspective might lead to a discussion about studying habits, or what other elements of student’s life might be impacting their learning. Understanding what a student’s life is like will help me make a student’s education more valuable to them.

Working in Student Affairs has done another thing for me that is also important: it has opened my eyes to the number of things that are happening outside of academic departments. Even more important, it has become clear to me that these are not things that are happening separate of academia, they are happening along side it, and would be better if they were working with academia. Additionally, they offer things for our students that would make academic departments and classes work better. And when these collaborations do happen, it will be a great benefit for the partnership when I’m able to utilize a student-first perspective, in addition to an anthropology-first perspective (and for the student affairs side to do the same). Being able to make connections between academic and student affairs programming will help me a great deal in these situations.

Certainly, these are not the only things that I have learned from this experience, but I think they are the most important. There are plenty of other ways for faculty members to gain this perspective. What are some other important cross-over skills that you think I may have benefited from? On the flip side, do you think Student Affairs may have benefited from my perspective as a researcher? As an anthropologist?

The Class I want to Teach

Monday, March 1st, 2010

This semester, I’ve been enrolled in a course on college teaching, as well as doing the Graduate Engagement Certificate out of the Office of Engagement. Both experiences have me thinking hard about what type of teacher I hope to be, and also what kinds of courses I’d like to teach. This idea, although requiring a lot resources, time, and energy, would be the ultimate course for me. Let me know what you think.

The topic: Local Cultural History and Heritage. I want to teach a class that would incorporate things I enjoy, think are valuable, and want to convey: archaeology, history, digital humanities, community engagement, and developing an appreciation for community spaces and heritage. I’m going to pretend that this course is offered at MSU, for simplicity’s sake. The course will be on the small end, maybe 15-25. It will survey the literature on cultural heritage, public archaeology, public history, etc. It will work within the confines of a larger digital humanities type of project: the establishment of an interactive and historical city map. This map would provide detailed GIS information about the history of spaces within the City, probably divided by city block.

Such a course would require partnerships across the University and community. University wide, we would partner with a course on Geographic Information Systems: my students would research and create content, while the GIS students would work within the framework of the interactive map to manipulate this data so that it fits within the framework. They would work in groups: something like 2 from my course, 2 from the GIS course.

The research would be done on block-by-block units. Each student group would research a different block, and create the content for those areas: my students working on gathering historical data, GIS students inputting it, both providing interpretation. Admittedly, I read about a professor who was doing this, I think in Richmond, VA. What I want to do, however, takes this towards community engagement, not just for analytical research.

These groups would not stop at four students. The community would also be incorporated into the project. Residents of the neighborhood would be asked work with us, visiting archives, studying their past, providing interviews about the neighborhoods. They would work beside us at each step, learning the power of the past, while we would learn about cultural heritage development, as well as something about the community in which they live.

The final product would take many, many years. Most likely an entire career. I would work neighborhood to neighborhood, so that completed projects could happen more rapidly (So, for example, take Old Town and finish that, then move on to Groesbeck, or something). This way, these neighborhoods could utilize the information for school groups, or whatever.

This class would also have a companion piece: a summer field school. The data collected by students would result in a fantastic overview of these neighborhoods, and potentially identify a number of potential archaeological sites. A field school would allow another opportunity to work with the community, as students and residents worked together to excavate the site, reemphasizing the power of discovery through very tangible means.

Please let me know your thoughts. I am curious if any of you have heard of similar ideas, have any suggestions about how it could be made better, or think it’s just an unobtainable dream…

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